Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

The State of Science Fiction

by Rob - July 29th, 2006.
Filed under: Uncategorized.

Lou Anders has a fascinating discussion going on his blog about the state of science fiction. See his posts (and the comments to them) here and here.

I just posted almost 900 words over there on this topic, and thought I’d share them here as well:

We often hear references in discussions like these (as echoed by the new SF reviewer at the New York Times) about today’s SF requiring a degree in physics to understand it. The conclusion often wrongly drawn from that is that, therefore, hard science is what’s bogging down SF. I disagree. It’s eminently possible to write about hard science — including quantum physics, string theory, brane theory, nanotech, subtleties of evolutionary theory, and so on — in an inviting fashion. The nonfiction bookshelves are full of such things: Brian Greene, Stephen Pinker, and recently Seth Lloyd are all doing that to great success.

And the problem isn’t infodumps being antithetical to fiction, despite what the MFA-derived workshopping movement wants to tell us. Michael Crichton and Dan Brown have outsold us all by orders of magnitude without ever once worrying about whether the reader will sit still for background information.

Aside: Lou, I almost titled my story “Flashes, ” which is in your Futureshocks anthology, “Infodumps” instead, so that I could use that as the title of my next short-story collection — reach out and tweak the critics right on the nose. But my wife talked me out of it. :)

Rather than infodumps being a problem, I think the real problem in a lot of books is a deliberate attempt to keep out outsiders. It started when we all thought it was cool to co-opt Ursula LeGuin’s term ansible for any faster-than-light communication system, but it’s gotten way worse than that.

Enormous numbers of SF novels whose plots hinge on nanotech or quantum physics fail to make the needed background self-contained in the book, and therefore exclude readers. Fantasy has to include all needed background in the book; perhaps to survive, science fiction should do this (with wit and charm and elegance, of course).

Instead, SF has become the leetspeak of pop literature: we like the outsider/misfit/subculture label, and set up linguistic barriers to keep newcomers out. Woot! $(13|\|(3 ph!xo|\| 12|_|73z! [Science fiction rules — and maybe it does, but it’s a pyrrhic victory if no outsider can read it. TANSTAAFL, and all that.]

For my own part, I’ve bet my career on trying to write accessible SF — stuff that can be read with pleasure both by those who are intimately familiar with the genre and by people who’ve never read it before. You were there last month, Lou, when I won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best novel of the year — and I was thrilled to get it, as I was thrilled to get the Hugo and the Nebula before that. But in all my career, the following are the two honors that mean the most to me, and they’re what I call juxtapositional honors:

First, I was thrilled that my 2000 novel Calculating God hit number one on the Locus bestsellers’ list — meaning it was doing well with habitual SF readers who shop at the SF specialty stores that provide the bulk of the datapoints for that list — and that Calculating God hit the national top-ten mainstream bestsellers lists here in Canada (in Maclean’s: Canada’s Weekly Newsmagazine and The Globe and Mail: Canada’s National Newspaper) — meaning that it was being scooped up by people who don’t traditionally read SF.

Second, I was thrilled that last year, my Hominids was chosen as the “One Book, One Community” reading selection for a Waterloo Region in Ontario, Canada, and was warmly embraced by huge numbers of readers who’d never read SF before, and that Hominids was serialized in Analog, the bastion of hard-SF. You can appeal to the core SF readership and the mainstream audience — it isn’t an either/or proposition.

Note that none of this requires downplaying the term “science fiction” — I make no bones about who I am and what I write.

Some of my British colleagues have similar experiences with both mainstream and genre acceptance, but not nearly enough American authors — or publishers — are even making a token effort to try for it.

It is possible to cater to both audiences with the same work, but it takes an understanding that this is what’s being undertaken not just by the author but by the publisher as well. Yes, call it science fiction, but don’t put an alien or a spaceship on the cover. I personally happen to like Robert Charles Wilson’s Blind Lake better than his Spin — although both are excellent, and both could easily be read by non-habitual SF readers — but Blind Lake didn’t get nearly as much notice, or, I’d wager, as many sales, because it has, literally, a bug-eyed monster on the cover (see above), whereas Spin has a very mainstream look, and was reviewed widely in and out of genre. Or look at Charles Stross’s Accelerando (US edition) — wonderful packaging that works both in and out of category.

Again, I’m not urging people to escape the SF category; rather I’m urging more at least try to do that tricky walk along the top of the fence around the category. Because it’s only by making new readers feel comfortable in our field that SF will survive.

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